Today’s transportation challenges require innovative approaches. Cities around the globe have begun fostering a new era of data-based commuting. With sensors and WiFi to solar panels and redesigned traffic lights, these five connected city initiatives will change the future of driving.

Santander: The data city

Every driver learns what areas to avoid during rush hour, but for cities to truly understand how to solve congestion problems, it’s crucial to have the right data.

In 2010, the Spanish city of Santander installed 12,000 sensors to measure the pulse of everything from traffic to weather. The huge net of data they collected helps influence the city-driven decisions about parking solutions, traffic bottlenecks, and even air pollution.

The information reaches the public via a smartphone app that not only updates drivers on traffic or parking, but also adds an element of augmented reality that displays additional geolocation information. The traffic sensors are just one part of the overall experiment. They’ve also applied it to electricity management and park maintenance.

Other than lessening commute times, the most exciting element of the SmartSantander project is that it’s open source. Any engineer with a bright idea can access the most elaborate city planning data set the world has ever seen.

EnGoPlanet improves sidewalks in Kuwait

Making roadways smarter involves more than just redesigning traffic routes: it also extends to the sidewalk. Improving the city experience for pedestrians means redesigning simple infrastructure like lights and benches.

Nowadays, all ambitious urban development projects include the pedestrian experience. But this doesn’t stop with wider sidewalks, new illumination and benches: 21st century additions to the urban landscape include WiFi hotspots, info displays and charging stations for mobile devices.

Among the pioneers of this new era is EnGoPlanet, founded in New York City in 2006. The company specializes in urban infrastructure development targeted at the modern smartphone user. Public benches by EnGoPlanet are thus equipped with a hotspot and a charging dock, fed by connected, solar-powered streetlights.

A clever alternative to solar panels is the kinetic energy produced by pedestrian footsteps in the vicinity, that can in return be sourced for charging their devices. Data produced in the process can help EnGoPlanet’s scientists better control electricity consumption. The first 140 of these stations are projected to be installed in Kuwait shortly.

Let’s hope EnGoPlanet’s home town of New York City will join soon after. Instead of the desert sunshine, the Big Apple can offer great amounts of foot traffic to produce kinetic energy – Times Square sees up to 460,000 pedestrians every day.

Lights and benches with EnGoPlanet technology
The street becomes connected – with EnGoPlanet technology.
Image: EnGoPlanet

A new look for traffic lights from Russia

The traffic light hasn’t changed much over the years. The ubiquitous green, yellow, and red system has served drivers so well it’s become an international standard – exactly the type of old-school infrastructure that could use a little disrupting.

Russian designer Evgeny Arinin approached traffic signage with fresh eyes, realizing that the signs explaining turning rules and right of way can simply be too much information for drivers to process effectively. His solution is to integrate it all into one sign, shaped like a plus signal, with each direction featuring colored LED lights.

Red still means stop, green still means go, but now there’s no need for separate turn signals or additional signage explaining right of way.

Arinin’s system is yet to be integrated, but his recent appearance in a design award put his work on the map. All it needs now are some investors, not necessarily only from Russia.

Surtrac for shorter red phases

A new look for traffic lights might seem like a tall order, but a much more achievable advancement is to smarten up the lights already in use.

Surtrac, a project by scientists of Carnegie Mellon University of Pittsburgh, analyzes traffic patterns and uses the data to make them more efficient. That means no more sitting alone at a red light, idling your vehicle, and punishing Mother Earth with unnecessary emissions.

The pilot program began in 2012 in Pittsburgh and was a runaway success, solving a traffic nightmare where three major thoroughfares crossed to cause fluid, ever-changing gridlock throughout the day. As a result of Surtrac’s intervention, travel times went down by 25%, and idling time at stop lights dropped by 40%.

The intelligent traffic lights can also communicate with autonomous vehicles, which has helped Pittsburgh become a test city for self-driving cars. But it isn’t just robot vehicles on Surtrac’s radar. Soon they plan to connect to traditional cars via radio signals to even better optimize the roadways.

A street with a green traffic light at night
Intelligent traffic lights communicate with your car.
Photo: Getty / Christophe Mathieu / EyeEm

Sensor-based parking management

Freelance designers and tech start-ups will shape much of the future of urban mobility, but only larger companies like Siemens, who are also developing solutions, have the power to push them into the market.

It is very likely that we will soon find better solutions for parking – the most frustrating part of a driving experience. Not only as drafts, but as scalable systems for an entire city center.

Driving circles in order to find parking can account for up to 40% of traffic in dense urban areas – a problem that Siemens’ Integrated Smart Parking Solution aims to solve. The system, fed by sensors mounted on lamp posts, generates and analyzes parking data in real time. This data can be sent to navigation systems in cars or on smartphones.

Another upside is the modularity of the system, which can be expanded to offer a broad array of other traffic solutions using GIS (geo informational system) data, for example for routing, city dashboards and traffic management to adaptive, demand-based light management.

All these innovations bring plenty of advantages, not only for motorists: Once cities have automatized their traffic management, they can move on to other important challenges: More green spaces, more sustainable architecture, and even a complete user-friendly mix of all transport modes.